Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Anh Sang” by Barry Brennessel— A Chance Metting

Brennessel, Barry. “Ánh Sáng”, Manifold Press, 2018.

A Chance Meeting

Amos Lassen

Since I began reviewing seriously some twelve years ago I have been lucky go meet some of the nicest people in our LGBTQ community. One of these was Barry Brennessel who I met at the Lambda Literary Awards after party some seven years ago. He introduced himself and asked if I would review one of his books back then and of course I agreed and since them I wait for him to have something new out. He always remembers to send me a copy. What I really like about Barry’s work is that he doesn’t follow formulae and writes as he feels. This means that everything is not tied together and there is no guarantee of a happy ending.

“Anh Sang” is set in French Indochina or French occupied Vietnam (whichever you prefer) during the First World War. We meet Minh who shares that French colonials treated the local citizens inhumanely and he was having quite a difficult time taking care of himself and his blind mother. The Vietnamese were forced to take a false French pride as they struggled against their colonial masters. I am quite sure that most of us have never read a gay story set in this part of the world and therefore we have to appreciate the writer’s research in daring to learn the background of what he is writing about and then presenting it to us. What I like about the writing here is that it is clear and to the point—- there are no literary or syntax surprises. Brennessel is also excellent at writing emotions and he takes us through the gamut of fear and confusion and ultimately rage.

Bùi Vân Minh had to grow up quickly when his father left home and went to the northern provinces. He had a responsibility to his family and he knew that his mother relied upon him. By chance, Minh meets Ngô Công Thao and he suddenly finds himself confused regarding how he feels for him. Ngo also feels what Minh feels and they both realize that they share something stronger than just friendship. However, life is difficult under the rule of the French and what happens as a result of World War I will change their lives completely. I really love the tenderness and the care of the writer in developing a first love story set against such a terrible time.

Life in Thái Nguyên City was difficult at best and the love that the two men feel hangs over it—at least in our minds. During wartime, it is difficult to live much less foster a romance and in this story, it is that love that brings light into the darkness.

Minh and Thao manage to find the short moments to express their feelings for one another and to give them hope that better times are coming for them. But then there is nothing traditional about this story so to expect it to end with a traditional happy ending seems to be too much to ask for. Everything comes to a head during the Thái Nguyên uprising of 1917 in which the anti-colonials destroyed the French rule. So what happened top our two young lovers? Do we get the happy ending we hope for or….. We do see them together one more time in the last pages of the story. I see no other way this story could have ended and it totally shook me for days.

“Social Intercourse” by Howard Greg— A Gay Teen in South Carolina

Howard, Greg. “Social Intercourse”, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

A Gay Teen in South Carolina

Amos Lassen

“Social Intercourse” is a clever love story that challenges preconceptions that people are either gay or straight or that the Bible Belt and football necessarily means a homophobic community. Beckett Gaines is a gay teen living in South Carolina, whose world goes through major changes because of a jock.

Jax is the Golden Boy, star quarterback who faces uncomfortable truths about himself and his past. It all begins when Beck’s “emotionally fragile dad” starts dating the recently single (and supposedly lesbian) mom of bully, Jaxon Parker. Neither Beck nor Jax is happy about it. They boys put aside their own differences and try to stop the romance before it becomes serious and they plan to do this at the first ever Rainbow Prom in the town but nothing goes according to plan.. Hearts will be broken, new romance will bloom, but nothing will go down the way Beck and Jax have planned.

We see the challenges of growing up different in a small southern town through the eyes of colorful and unforgettable characters and it is great fun. The story is told through Beckett and Jax as alternating narrators. The two guys are total opposites with Beck being openly gay, choir singing, sassy and proud and obsessed with the Golden Girls and Jaxon, the school’s star football player and ladies man whose reputation is built on the points he’s scored on the field and the ladies he’s scored before and after games. They come together for a mutual purpose of tearing their families apart, so they can return to the safe lives that they knew before their parents started dating. before. As they scheme together, the boys become closer, and things get complicated and we see that there is more to each of the boys than we think, at first. 

Beck is a person who cares about his best friend, and who gets angry at her mother’s mistreatment of her and tries to help her see that she’s more than the negative ideas that she has been led to believe. After his mother walked out on the family, Beck became the adult and took care of his dad. He really wants to protect his father from any more hurt. He sees the life that he has worked hard on after his mother leave slipping away from his control. After all, he is just a teen.

Aside from being a jock, Jax is a nice guy who loves his two moms who saved him from a broken and abusive home, and, like Beck wants to keep his home and family intact. As his mothers’ separate, Jax questions his image of the jock that his entire social life has been built on.

When they come together, Beck and Jax are funny, awkward, and confrontational. They can surely serve as the basis for many good discussions and become good examples of how things can be and should be done. It seems that in order to take a good look at who we are, we often have to be forced to do so as Jax and Beck are both forced to when they look at how they’ve dealt with each other and how they’ve dealt with their parents.

Here is a well-written story of two opposite types finding first gay love in the conservative South that will put a smile on your face as you read. We also see something about family here in the special relationships each boy had. The love and respect each boy gives his parents and the close-knit relationships each boy has with them is a warm and cuddly read that makes us feel good. There are so many ways we can read this and I am amazed at how quickly I fell in love with everyone in the story.

“Ivy Vs. Dogg: With A Cast Of Thousands!” by Brian Leung— A Challenge

Leung, Brian. “Ivy Vs. Dogg: With A Cast Of Thousands!”, C&R Press, 2018.

A Challenge

Amos Lassen

In “Ivy Vs. Dogg”, Brian Leung introduces us to teen Ivy Simmons who shocks her small town by daring to challenge hometown boy-hero, Jimmy Doggins, in a showdown election for the title of Junior Mr. Mayor of Mudlick. This is a conversation about how society imagines the correct subject position for a person and does so satirically with the goal of arriving at the fantasy version of correctness. We see that the committee has a received and built vision of gender propriety and “value the young people performing the simulacrum of this vision.” The committee and community (mostly) has long dealt with this kind of thinking.

Ivy Simmons has a longstanding rivalry with Jimmy, “Dogg,” Doggins, high school tennis star, and hometown hero. It comes to a head when the town of Mudlick’s annual Jr. Mr. Mayor election is announced and Ivy becomes the first female ever to run. Mudlick’s busybody leaders, known as “the committee” don’t approve, especially when Ivy reveals that she is pregnant. Displeased with the public debate over what Ivy should do about her unborn child, matriarch Abigail Colton displays a lifelike topiary girl on her front lawn, enchanting all of Mudlick to the point where they fear for the life of this “girl” when Colton also rolls out a topiary of a giant squid. Between this and the election, emotions run high, forcing Ivy and Dogg to make the most adult decision of their young lives.

Brian Leung’s satire of suburban politics and helicopter parenting, laughs at the rules we follow to keep people in their place. In the campaign, the fault lines in community rise to the surface and we see the courage it takes to be not just a candidate but to be being.

Mudlick is filled with characters both human and humane and it is a place where the absurd collides with the status quo and chaos follows. We see who we truly are and how we wish to be seen.

“Beowulf for Cretins: A Love Story” by Ann McMan— Gay in Acdemia

McMan, Ann. “Beowulf for Cretins: A Love Story”, Bywater Books, 2018.

Gay in Academia

Amos Lassen

Ann McMan hits close to home for me in her “Beowulf for Cretins” but I will get to that later. We meet Grace Warner, an English professor and want-to-be novelist who spends her days teaching four sections of “Beowulf for Cretins” to bored and disinterested students at one of New England’s “hidden ivy” colleges. Even though I spent two semesters in graduate courses on “Beowulf”, I must admit by having done so, my life has not been changed in one way. Grace had the misfortune of being dumped by her girlfriend and while flying across the country, she met Abbe who is extremely engaging and equally mysterious. Once the plane landed, Abbe and Grace enjoyed a no strings night of passion.

Upon returning to teaching at St. Albans in New England, she is greeted by the announcement of the appointment of the new president, a woman for the first time in the 165 year history of the school and Grace gets the shock of her life when Abbe… Entering Grace’s life is a dog with neuroses named Grendel and a woman named Ochre.

What a place for a romantic comedy especially when the world of academia that Edward Albee gave us in “Virginia Woolf” was so different, or was it? Writer Ann McMan also introduces us to a cast of characters that are both loveable and a bit off-track and she uses them as a way to look at human behavior in both its sanity and absurdity. I cannot decide which I enjoyed more– McMan’s prose or her story— but then I really do not have to make a choice. It’s great when the style and the plot come together to give a good read. It is, above all else, the writer’s wit that makes this a fascinating read. Bringing comedy, intellect and sensitivity is not an easy job and this also allows for different levels of understanding and interpretation. I could not help but notice that my reviewing colleague Grady Harp had the same to say. There is a bonus and that it is an observation of how we live today and everyone who reads this will find something of themselves here.

“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai— Friendship, Redemption and AIDS

Makkai, Rebecca. “The Great Believers”. Viking, 2018.

Friendship, Redemption and AIDS

Amos Lassen

Set in 1985, we met Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, who is about to bring in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Just as his career begins to flourish, the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico’s funeral, the virus gets closer and closer to Yale himself and it did not take long before the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister.

We move ahead some 30 years and find Fiona in Paris looking for her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. Fiona is staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago AIDS crisis and now she is finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter.

We begin with the stories of Yale and Fiona whose intertwining stories take us into the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both characters struggle to find something good while in the middle of disaster. We read of friendship and redemption in the face of loss and great tragedy. set in 1980s Chicago and Paris.

I am so glad that we are not losing the literature of AIDS and that we seem t have a renaissance in writings about it. We do not ever want to forget what we lost. But let me say that this is an emotional read especially for those of us who lived through the epidemic. Writer Rebecca Makkai asks some very big and important questions about connection and redemption as her story attempts to answer them.

Like the characters here, we start with heartbreak and move toward hope. This is a story about the families we choose and how we feel about the families we are born into. We see how tragic illness changes our lives and how it never leaves those who managed to get through it. Makkai’s well drawn characters struggle with painful pasts yet fight to love one another and find joy in the present in spite of what is to come. Makkai gives us a brilliant look at Chicago and Paris in the 80s and Paris during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. More than a story about the epidemic, this is the story about hope and

resilience that had me on the first page and would not let me go. We forget that AIDS affected us all as it randomly selected its victims and ultimately too something from each of us. The trauma of the early days was filled with anger and love and while it devastated us, it did not destroy us. We were not defeated even in the face of death. We read of young men lost to AIDS and those who survived. “The Great Believers” is funny, scary, tender, devastating, and suspenseful.  It was a time that we shall never forget nor can we allow ourselves to forget.

What I love the most about this novel is the brutal and emotional truthfulness with which it was written. Makkai has brilliantly captured the rage and the panic, the ire and the hope of a moment in time during which so much was lost. Not only did I shed tears over the story but also over the beauty of language with which Makkai wrote.

 

 

 

 

“Surviving Immortality” by Alan Chin— A Story of the Fountain of Youth

Chin, Alan. “Surviving Immortality”, Dreamspinner Press, 2018.

A Story of the Fountain of Youth

Amos Lassen

One of the great stories of our world is the search for the fountain of youth. It is a story that never gets old and pops up after few years when someone claims to have found it. I am sure that the story has appeared in LGBT literature before now but I am totally unaware of it. Alan Chin brings us his own story about a formula that keeps people young and healthy for thousands of years. We meet

Kenji Hiroshige who discovers a formula that does just that but he tells the world he will not release information until every gun, tank, battleship, and bomb has been destroyed. When there is peace and we live in a world with no weapons, we can all live forever world is free of weapons, everyone can live forever. After Kenji made that statement, he went into hiding but first, his son, 18-year-old Matt Reece is exposed to the formula. Kenji takes Matt with him, but as they try to get past government agencies and corporations that see huge profits from Kenji’s discovery, Matt learns that world peace is probably not his father’s only goal. However, as a young man who has lived in isolation until now, there is nothing he can do.

All is not well with the world in this story yet we have one young man who shows the courage necessary to be his own person. When his older brother Patrick went off to school, Matt has felt alone and it gets worse from day to day. More important is that he senses that things will get bad. His two fathers are lost to him because of work or alcohol making him feel more alone. He has panic attacks from the feeling that he has been abandoned, left behind with a dying grandfather and a dying dog. Jessup, his biological father tries to help Matt get through this and then his stepfather, surprisingly helps the dog to get better from something he holds in his hand.

Matt Reece sneaks into Kenji’s veterinary satchel and takes the device to use on his grandfather but Kenji rage at seeing what Matt has done is more than he can deal with. Before he realized it, he and Kenji were gone. He realizes that they are on the run, escaping the government and something even more powerful. Suddenly, Matt and Kenji are fighting for survival. The plot becomes complex although totally understandable and it has been a while since we have had an LGBT thriller like this that keeps us turning pages as quickly as possible. Tension builds steadily. Writer Alan Chin has crafted a story filled with action that does not let up. The high-speed chase in the story gives us a high-speed read that at times leaves us out-of-breath.

I do not want to ruin the plot by saying any more about it. The prose is excellent, the characters are richly developed and there are many. Romance is not a big theme here— we know that Kenji and Jessup are in a relationship but they end up on opposite sides and we get little indication what will happen to the two men.

I would love to be able to say more but I believe that by saying this is a special book, you will know that I recommend it highly. Like I said, we do not get reads like this often.

“Yeled Tov” by Daniel M. Jaffe— A Good Jewish Gay Boy

Jaffe, Daniel M. “Yeled Tov”, Lethe Press, 2018.

A Good Jewish Gay Boy

Amos Lassen

I always look forward to a new book by Daniel Jaffe and that is probably that is because he says what I think (and much better than I could day it). I have managed to get over the Jewish guilt I used to have about my religion and my sexuality and have learned to embrace them both knowing that these parts of my life have made me who I am. I always wanted to be a “yeled tov” or a good boy but it was difficult to do so before reconciling those two important aspects of my life and my being.

Jaffe takes us back to 1974 to meet Jake Stein who also wants to be a good Jewish boy but who finds himself struggling to reconcile his traditional beliefs and his strong faith in God with his growing attraction to other boys (now this sounds very familiar). At school he was in the school play, “The Diary of Anne Frank” and while he should be overjoyed to get cast, he is upset because he knows that he should be thinking about the terrible suffering that Jews went through but instead he is falling for the kid who’s playing Peter van Daan. Things get no better for him when he gets to college and meets his very handsome roommate who seldom wears clothing. Jaffe shares the story of a young boy and man who fights hard to find a middle ground between “desire and devotion”. He asks God for advice and what he hears back is what he imagines what God would say about doing the right thing. do the right thing (I am not sure that God knows how to answer questions about lust). Jake seems, on the other hand, to know a great deal about lust since he deals with it so often—he finds himself lusting after men at the synagogue;, he lusts after his best friend and he lusts after his college roommate, he lusts after schoolmates. He feels that God is not sympathetic with his plight and the more he lusts, the more he feels shut into himself and shut out of society. He sees only one way out and that is abhorrent to God.

I have read many gay coming-of-age stories and there are some that are very good and there are some that are the same old story with different names. Here we have something very different in that we are with Jake on his journey and we feel what he feels (due to the skill of writer Jaffe). Jake so wants to be slutty and promiscuous but he knows that is not the way good Jewish boys act (he obviously does not know the same Jewish boys that I do).

Now let me explain something here. Jewish boys have the same urges and lusts that everyone else does but there is a difference that is based on faith. Those who are raised in Orthodox homes have a great deal of trouble trying to understand how faith and sexuality can work together. It is indeed possible that they can but to make this happen it must come from within. Once you accept who you are it is a great deal easier. Sure, you might lose a seat at the family Sabbath dinner but there are other places that will welcome you quickly. Let me give you an example. When I decided that it was time to come out to my family, I sat down with my father and told him how I felt. To my surprise, he did not say “get out”. Rather, he stroked his beard and said, “I don’t like what you are but I would rather you find someone to love instead of never knowing what love us.” No one was more surprised than me and, in effect, my father saved my life. We later feel out over other things so it did not end well but a brief time, I was very proud of him.

We read the Torah incorrectly and we find admonitions that are not there like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not about homosexuality as so many claim but about the lack of hospitality. Misunderstandings can cause dire results. There were several times as I read that I wanted to call out to Jake and tell him to come and sit with me for a while but remember that the story is set in 1974. Things were very different then.

Basically, Jake is a “yeled tov” of the title. He lusts passively and we really never know if the reason he makes no moves on someone else has to do with his not wanting other people to know that he is gay or because he is afraid of rejection. When he was young his father told him that regardless of what he does, he is to never hurt the girl that he is with. Obviously Jake changed that to mean that if he can do this, he will always be a good boy, a yeled tov. However, he can only be a good boy when he himself realizes that he is.

There is so much to like in this book and first among those is the plot that shows Jaffe’s own familiarity with Judaism yet while this is a book about a Jewish guy there is no need to be Jewish to enjoy it. The Yiddish phrases used are all either defined or easily understood by their usage. Jaffe’s dialogue is excellent and is his character development. I just wonder if he anticipated what he was getting into with Jake who appears on almost every page. Jake’s conversations with God are amazing and as you near the end of the book, you should be prepared to shed a few tears. God tells Jake, “There are times when a man must make his own decisions. You’re a man now Jake. It’s time I let you decide for yourself how to live… Yes, being a man is scary, indeed. Give yourself time… I’m going to step aside now. But I’ll always be here. Make Me proud of the life I granted you. Be good to yourself”.

Let me close by saying the same thing to all of you, my friends and readers—  “Be good to yourselves”.

 

“Now I’m Here” by Jim Provenzano— Finding and Falling in Love

Provenzano, Jim. “Now I’m Here”, Beautiful Dreamer Press, 2018.

Finding and Falling in Love

Amos Lassen

Welcome to Serene, Ohio and small town America. Our story begins in the 1970s and carries us through the year 2000. We meet Joshua and David, two young boys from different families who eventually find each other and then lose each other for the following thirty years. Joshua was raised in a stable middle-class family while David is the product of an abusive and alcoholic father. Eric Gottlund narrates the story and he had his own special relationship with Joshua and David. In fact, he was the one who brought David and Jonathan back to Serene at a time during which the town was experiencing its first pains of urban life encroaching a new kind of lifestyle. as a suburb. As change comes, memories fade and so Eric wants to being his two friends back before they are lost to time. In the past David and Joshua had had to fight not only overt homophobia but religious prejudice as well as small mindedness, rehabilitation therapy and the temptations of fame and fortune and the AIDS epidemic, We are with the two boys as they love and learn. I found it impossible not to love our three main characters especially since we have watched then grow into adults.

Because of the pure and beautiful love they share, they become symbols of the struggle to stay together. I do want to point out that I am so glad that Provenzano included the AIDS epidemic in his story. It is a very important part of our history that must never be forgotten. Something else that I am happy to see here is that we have a gay male writer writing a gay male love story and we cannot feel but feel the emotions that he has poured into his characters. Not only is this the story about us and by one of us, it is so much more than that. We live in a world where everyone seems to want to write a book and then tries to do so. Within our community we have a small and special group of LGBT fiction writers that indeed write their stories to share with us. That is how I have always felt about the books by Provenzano. It is almost as he is the scribe for our community and each book brings something new.

There is another theme here that I want to mention. This is a book about memory/memories. One of my favorite opening monologues comes from “The Glass Menagerie” when Tom says to the audience that the play is memory and that memory always happens to music. We tend to remember certain events in our lives based upon the music that was popular at the time. Music, especially English rock music and the band Queen are important to the story here.

While this is a small story, it is also as Mark Abramson says, “an epic story” that captivates the reader and holds him. It is not a story that will be easily forgotten; it will stay with you long after you have closed the covers. I also found it to be quite a personal story and that is why I have not shared much of the plot. I want you to have the same pleasure I did reading “Now I’m Here”.

“That First Heady Burn” by Geoege Bixley— Beginning a New Series

Bixley, George. “That First Heady Burn”, (The Slater Ibanez Books Book 1), Dagmar Miura, 2018.

Beginning a New Series

Amos Lassen

Dagmar Miura is a small publishing house that never disappoints and has now launched a new series that introduces us to Slater Ibanez, a gay freelance investigator. He defines himself by the men in his life that fall into two categories—the guys he wants to punch and the guys he wants to have sex with. Slater roams the dark side of Los Angeles, looking for and rooting out insurance fraud and he does whatever he has to do to get things done and this includes physical violence. We might say that he is “a queer antihero for a new age”. He sits somewhere on the line between ordinary life and the fringes of society that are fraying now. His employer, Della, throws him occasional jobs and he is supported by Conrad, a cop and his ex-boyfriend.

He is on his first case that he shares with us here. It involves running surveillance on an injured tech worker and as he does, he learns that in the worker’s company and he wants to know how the company makes money when no one works for them and why the head of the company is able to spend so much time at the border. Slater questions why this tech company employs so much security.

It does not take long before Slater finds himself in a strange milieu that is filled with party girl who provide late night hookups, blackmailers, all kinds of men and lots of booze. Slater knows that he will have to use his wits as well as physical combat to get to the bottom of the case.

He has friends who think highly of him but he cannot show emotion. He knows who and what he is and he is content with that. We really do not get to know him well here (but I understand that this will change in upcoming books). Slater is above all a man and quite a sexy one at that. He is also arrogant and self-destructive. Writer Bixley writes with wonderful detail and he makes sure we know the physicality of the story because it is important as a place of focus and to understand what is going on, it is advantageous to get a mental picture. Because of the nature of the story, I cannot say anymore about the plot. What I can say is that the characters are well drawn, the prose is lovely and the plot will keep you reading. Mystery buffs will have a great time with his book just as will the rest of us.

“Alias” by Cari Hunter— Recovering

Hunter, Cari. “Alias”, Bold Strokes Book, 2018.

Recovering

Amos Lassen

Rebecca Elliott wakes up in a car that has been in a horrible accident. She has no idea about and neither dos she know the dead person next to her in the car. Detective Bronwen Pryce is called to the scene of an accident to find a woman barely conscious. Pryce can’t prove anything but something about this accident and this woman is telling her much more is going on.

As Rebecca struggles to recover from her injuries, a startling revelation shatters everything she thought she knew, forcing her into an uneasy alliance with Detective Bronwen Pryce. When we meet Rebecca, it seems that she is trying to escape from the wreckage.

Little by little, we learn of the past— at the same time that Rebecca remembers her own past.The book is filled with tension and suspense and these are what keep me from writing a lot bout the plot.

We see that Rebecca is not who she seems. Pryce has a feeling that there is something missing regarding the accident and will not let it go. She wants to know more about Rebecca Elliott and why she was headed out of town in such a hurry.

“Alias” is one of those books that has you turning pages as quickly as possible. We want to know what happened but I think the writers detailed writing style also helps to make this the book that it is. Crime and suspense are everywhere and there is a bit of romance in a very hot sex scene.